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Encounter with Elizabeth Wilder

Cliff Notes

Driving to a rock-climbing site is more dangerous than the ascent, but caution is still advised on the way up.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mark Pothier
Globe Staff / September 14, 2003

You're a serious rock climber and an instructor with Maine's Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School. Were you ever afraid of heights?

We all have some fear of heights; it's basic human instinct.

When did you decide hiking up a mountain wasn't enough?

I actually started wanting to rock climb at about 5 years old. I think my first steps came when I climbed a pile of cinder blocks and stood 10 feet off the ground. My mother almost had a heart attack.

So you've been a risk taker all your life?

I take calculated risks. Driving to the cliff is the most dangerous part of the day. We have so much redundancy built into the equipment, the perceived risk is higher than the actual one.

There's also the perception that rock climbing is mostly a male sport.

There is, but women are really well suited to climbing. A lot of times guys will be more confident about their upper body strength. A woman needs to rely more on finesse and technique.

What are the most popular places to rock climb in New England?

Probably Cathedral Ledge in North Conway [New Hampshire]. Acadia National Park [in Maine] is very popular, too. Cathedral is closer to Boston, but it's also more crowded.

Have you ever spent a night on a cliff?

I haven't climbed routes that take more than one day. Most of those are out west. But I have spent a night on a route for fun. You build a strong anchor to connect you to the mountain and try to get comfortable, which isn't always possible. That way, if you roll off the edge in your sleep, it will be scary, but you won't go far.

Have you had any close calls?

There was one scary moment on Katahdin [in Maine]. I was with a friend, and it was raining. Thunderheads moved in, and we had to move [off a cliff] really quickly.

Does high-tech equipment give climbers a false sense of security?

It can, because the tools don't make a mistake, the user does. If people think they have a fool-proof device, they let their guard down.

So you're not a proponent of something as extreme as free soloing?

That's when you don't have any rope or safety backup. A lot of soloists have died. If it starts to rain and there's a slippery hold, that's it. The consequences of failure are absolute. I don't encourage people to do it.

Do you find life spent on flat ground boring?

I get antsy and irritable. Climbing and open space are relaxing.

If you had children, would it affect your attitude toward climbing?

I think I'm pretty conservative. There's the image of rock climbers dying doing what they love, but I want to live to climb another day.

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